Around the World in Five Years

A Richmond family sets out to sail the oceans.

A round-the-world sailing adventure? Sounds like a distant dream. But one Richmond family is heading up the East Coast toward Maine right now in their 1984 Passport 47 sailboat on the first leg of what they hope will become a five-year voyage around the world. Ben and Amber Ward, along with their three daughters, Maddy, Lizzy, and Aliza, have been working for 10 years to make this dream come true. They’re finally on their way, and when we met in May at the York River Yacht Haven, just two weeks before their departure, the excitement was surging.

Bend and Amber were childhood friends in Columbus, Georgia. They went to the same church, attended school together, and started dating in college. Both grew up on powerboats, but once married, the two fell in love with sailing life. Ben’s work brought the young family to Richmond, and the couple and their daughters expanded their sailing knowledge by taking classes, attending camps, and sharpening skills on the Chesapeake Bay.

Somewhere along the way, they started dreaming of sailing full time as a family. “The popular recipe is you retire and do this,” explains Ben, 39, who works in banking, “but there are no guarantees in life.” Sitting in the cockpit on a blue-sky spring day, Ben and Amber try to put into words what motivated them to sell their home and move their family onto a boat, one they will pilot to exotic destinations.

“Our health is fleeting,” Ben says. “Sailing is kind of hard. A boat like this is better handled by people who are in good physical condition.”

“Our children are our motivation,” says Amber, 38, a former teacher who homeschools the three girls. “They’re at this perfect age where they’re able to go and enjoy and remember and young enough to still like being with their parents.”

Ben adds, “It’s not just about quality of life, but quantity.” The final piece in making their sailing dream feasible fell into place when his employer agreed to let Ben work remotely on a permanent basis. “It was the silver lining to the pandemic.” The family started living full-time on their boat in October 2020. They hoped to venture south to Florida and the Caribbean before winter weather set in. But, as Ben says, “There’s always something.”

The couple named their boat Koinonia, a Greek word found in the Bible that means breaking bread, sharing with, and helping others.

They’ve been through a huge learning curve, he admits. “You think you’re going to buy a boat and it’s ready to go, but that’s a rare scenario.” Ben lists all the improvements he and Amber have made to their boat and the DIY projects they were still finalizing when we met. “Everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think,” says Ben with a wry smile.

The couple named their boat Koinonia, a Greek word found in the Bible that means breaking bread, sharing with, and helping others. “There’s an old-school pioneering mentality among boaters,” explains Ben. “Everyone comes together to help each other. It’s not a barn raising; it’s a mast raising.”

Planning food for their voyage has been a challenge, Amber says, and admits she has filled every nook and cranny in their sailboat with canned foods and dried goods. “We’re not going hungry anytime soon,” says Ben.

The Wards plan to sail with the seasons. After summering in the waters of coastal Maine, they will return to Virginia for doctors’ and dental appointments before heading to Florida and the Caribbean next winter. “We’re chasing the good weather,” Ben says, “We’ll go where we want to when we want to when it’s safe to do so.”

The girls, who range in age from 6 to 13, will help sail the boat and have already begun learn- ing to steer and handle the sails. Amber says she is looking forward to “enjoying God’s creation in its fullness,” as well as learning about other cultures, lifestyles, and cuisines, and meeting new people. “I love being on a sailboat,” she says. “You just hear the wind and the waves. It’s so peaceful.”

Aliza, 6, says she’s excited about visiting different lands and seeing different people. “I’ll make thousands of friends,” she says, “more friends than I can imagine.” Lizzy, 12, says she’s not nervous about the voyage at all and looks forward to seeing other places and fishing. “I want to catch a mahi-mahi.”

Big sister Maddy, 13, can’t wait to learn about underwater sea life. “I have a snorkel that covers my whole face and flippers and a waterproof mermaid’s tail that makes me feel like a fish,” she says. “I want to go to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It’s supposed to be filled with the most beautiful sea life.”

Follow the Ward family’s adventures on their blog: SailingKoinonia.com.

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